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Time is an illusion…

Lunchtime doubly so.


That quote, spoken by galactic hitch-hiker Ford Prefect in Douglas Adams’ timeless classic, is not only humorous but profound. It points out the variability of our perception of the passing of time. When we’re enjoying ourselves - such as when we’re having a very nice lunch in convivial company at a pleasant venue, where the food is good and the wine flows freely - we hardly notice the passing of time until, before we know it, it’s 3pm and the boss is on the phone demanding to know where we are and why we haven’t finished that report on the third quarter’s sales figures. At a time like that who wouldn't wish for the technology to stick out an electronic thumb and hitch a ride to some exotic, faraway corner of the galaxy; anywhere but here.


How many of us spend our time slaving over dull, meaningless tasks while wishing we were somewhere else? How slowly time seems to drag as we crunch numbers through a spreadsheet and calculate gross margins to two decimal places.


Another of Douglas Adams’ characters asked whether it really mattered, cosmically speaking, if we didn’t get up and go to work every morning. Well, does it?


As a young man I remember looking at my life stretching away into the future and thinking to myself, is this it? Is this all there is? A lifetime of drudgery, of pointless shuffling of bits of paper while outside the window day follows day, summer turns to winter and back to summer again while I stay the same, just another year older and closer to oblivion?


“And then one day you find

Ten years have got behind you

No one told you when to run

You missed the starting gun…”

- Pink Floyd, “Time” from the album “Dark Side of the Moon,” 1973


Personally, I’ve never been one for sitting on my backside and letting life pass me by, though I’ve known a lot of people who did that. I’ve always had a sense of time passing, and a desire to do something meaningful with the time that I have. Of course I’ve had my experiences of working in tedious jobs in which I didn’t appear to be achieving much, other than making someone else rich while I just marked time. Even in those jobs, though, I’ve had my eye on something better that I aspired to. The job was a means to an end. It paid the bills while I got my ducks in a row, ready for the next move.


I often wonder how many people start out with an idea like that; they need the money so they take a meaningless job temporarily thinking that after a year or so they’ll move on. “I owe, I owe, so off to work I go.” Somehow, though, time gets away from them and ten years later they’re still there, only now they’re conditioned to that way of life, deeper in debt and stuck in a deep rut from which they’re unlikely ever to escape.


If they consider where their life is going, they probably think something like, “yes I know it’s boring but there’s plenty of time for me to do something else if I want to.”


But whatever that “something else” might be, they never find it. Habit keeps their nose to the grindstone, trudging along a well-worn path that leads to nowhere. Time passes in a blur of mortgage payments and tax returns, children growing up, hair greying and falling out, thickening waist-line, every day shorter of breath until - quite suddenly, it seems - it’s all in the past, time has run out and what future still remains seems very short.


What a way to go!


I’ve always had a horror of living my life that way. I wouldn’t claim to have had a grand plan from the moment I left home, but 16 year-old me knew, deep down, that sitting around waiting for life to pass me by was never going to satisfy me. The world was a big, scary place filled with strange, scary people but my fear of going out and getting amongst it was less than my fear of an empty and meaningless life.


Looking back, I didn’t articulate all this. I could not have explained why I felt so driven to get out of the sheltered, conservative, dull little life that my upbringing had prepared me for and step into the unknown. All I was consciously aware of was that wherever I looked, out there the sun shone a little brighter, the sea was bluer and the grass was greener than it was at home.


Now I’m getting to that time of life at which it’s traditional to look back and wonder whether it was all worth it. I passed the “mid-life crisis” stage without losing my marbles completely, by which I mean that somebody hid them from me for a while but then I found them again and moved on without needing to buy an open-top sports car or a big, loud, obese Harley Davidson motorcycle to remind myself that I was still alive. By then I knew who I was, who I am, and I didn’t need to acquire stuff like that to reassure me of my existence.


Throughout my life, as time passed and I got older, I’ve had a growing sense of purpose. In earlier years it was merely a feeling that yes, there is a reason I’m here and my life does have meaning, even if right now I don’t know what it is. I’ve always had faith that one day I’d figure it out, and in the meantime I could live in a way that seemed right to me, avoid what seemed wrong, watch, listen, and learn.


I’ve learned that no matter what is going on in my life and in the world around me, I am always me. Nothing can change that or take it away from me. I’m here, I’m alive, and there’s not one single thing that I would change. Sure enough life’s not perfect but such as it is, I’m happy with it.


I know that very many people in the world around me are not so happy with the way their lives are turning out. They feel stuck in a life, and a lifestyle, that’s become increasingly unsatisfactory as the years have gone by, but they feel powerless to change anything. Very often they don’t believe that anything could be different: this is it, life’s a bitch and then you die. I’m here to tell them - to tell you - that it doesn’t have to be that way.


“But what can I do,” I’m often asked. “I want things to be different, but I don’t know what to do.”


I’ll share a secret with you.


I’ve never known what to do either.


You see, when it comes right down to where the rubber hits the road, it really doesn’t matter what you do.


What matters is that you do something. The key is action, because by taking action you will demonstrate to yourself that you are in the driving seat of your life. You are not stuck. You are not a helpless victim of circumstances beyond your control. You are the master of your own destiny.


When you know who you are, and you put that understanding into everything - every single thing - that you do, your life will automatically have meaning and purpose. Your purpose is to become authentically yourself, to live in full alignment with that, and then whatever you choose to do will be a manifestation of that.


You do what you do because you are who you are, not the other way around.


When you understand this, time still passes in the illusory ways it always has done but it ceases to be important because every moment now has meaning for you.




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Rukshana Alieva
Rukshana Alieva
Mar 20, 2023

This is so profound Bernard. Thank you much for sharing it.


I remember last year I caught myself into this unhelpful thinking pattern 'I wish I had done things differently in the past'. All those regrets when you feel powerless knowing that you cannot turn back time. I guess, the truth is there is always something we can do about the situation we don't like.


As you wisely said, 'the key is to take action, doing something about the situation rather than being helpless victims so we become the masters of our own destiny'.

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Well written Bernard and very poignant. Time has only now come into the picture as I grow older, before every day seemed to be a push towards somewhere, maybe I took your suggestion and took action. Today I have to tell myself to slow down, restlessness is one of my saboteurs, driving me incessantly to fill up my days with appointments and tasks. To counter this frenetic tendency I plan weekly walks in the mountains, where I wander with no time restraints, knowing only that I have to get down as the evening sets in. A liberating way of giving a two finger salute to time and bringing calm to a restless soul.

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Bernard Kates
Bernard Kates
Mar 20, 2023
Replying to

Thanks Gary.


Perhaps I should have said that for me the key is mindful action. That's to say taking action without losing sight of where I currently am and what I'm currently doing. It also means moving towards a desired outcome rather than running away from an unpleasant situation, keeping my "eyes on the prize" but also alert to any opportunities I might encounter along the way.


Strolling apparently aimlessly in nature is a fantastic way to let go, slow down and just be. "Not all those who wander are lost."


Relax! Don't worry. Be happy.

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